What good are principles if you can't talk about them? Would-be senator Rand Paul's real problem in his
on Wednesday was not that he said something terrible about civil rights. It was that he was afraid to say what he really believes about civil rights.
What Rand Paul believes—or what he believed two days ago—is (or was) that the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that
should not have been passed. The federal government had the power to stop racial discrimination in government, but it did not have the power to order restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, and so on to stop separating or excluding customers based on race.
That is what Rand Paul was trying to say, while also trying not to say it, as he dodged and squirmed his way through the Maddow interview. He emphasized, repeatedly, that he fully supported the parts of the Civil Rights Act in which the government made it illegal for the government to racially discriminate. He said that when the government tells a private business such as a restaurant what it can and can't do, then the government becomes the owner of the restaurant.
So as of Wednesday, Rand Paul was in favor of the parts of the Civil Rights Act that applied to government activity. And he was against laws that allowed the government to regulate private activity.
Well, then, how did he feel about the part of the Civil Rights Act that allowed the government to regulate private activity? That line of questioning was "abstract." It was "philosophical." It was a "gotcha":
MADDOW: And should Woolworth lunch counter should have been allowed to stay segregated? Sir, just yes or no.
PAUL: What I think would happen -- what I'm saying is, is that I don't believe in any discrimination. I don't believe in any private property should discriminate either. And I wouldn't attend, wouldn't support, wouldn't go to.
But what you have to answer when you answer this point of view, which is an abstract, obscure conversation from 1964 that you want to bring up. But if you want to answer, you have to say then that you decide the rules for all restaurants and then you decide that you want to allow them to carry weapons into restaurants.
That was a 98-word answer to a yes-or-no question. None of the 98 words was "yes" or "no." Dave Weigel, the Washington Post conservatives-beat blogger,
under the headline "Rand Paul, telling the truth," praising Paul's willingness to "stand by his philosophical and legal stance and refuse to dissemble."
Hooey. Rand Paul spent the interview ducking the opportunity to honestly express what he believed. And after he was done ducking, he got to running—in both the tactical and the electoral senses of the word. By Thursday, he had
Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.
As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years.
In this new account, the government was right to "halt the abhorrent practice of segregation," whether that segregation was embodied in Jim Crow laws or in private commercial activity. The public-accommodations part of the law is "settled."
Either people do have the right to discriminate racially, or they don't. Before he found himself in a politically awkward spot this week, Rand Paul
, as a right. Even though he personally despised the practice of racism, liberty means sometimes people get to do bad things.
Now he no longer supports that right. Everyone decides to draw the line on liberty somewhere—flag burning, cross burning, kiddie porn, driving without seat belts. Rand Paul just drew the line where it keeps him presentable as a mainstream political candidate. Welcome to
, Tea Partiers!